Voices: Sam Jones

The 2021 MLS season's top 11 storylines

Wow, what a season. A Cascadia team made MLS Cup, Atlanta United hired a new manager, the Supporters’ Shield winner failed to win in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, a team of plucky upstarts with a low budget made waves and an expansion team provided a phenomenal atmosphere. 2021 was truly a year unlike any other.

Before we get to the best storylines of the year based on whatever criteria I had in my head at the time, some honorable mentions…

Anyway, in absolutely no order, here are the 2021 MLS season’s top 11 storylines according to this writer’s point of view.

Atlanta and Toronto miss big on managers

I’ve been wondering: Has there ever been a managerial hire in MLS that backfired more relative to expectations than Gabriel Heinze? Go back and look at everything written and said about the hire. People in MLS thought it was a home run, people in Argentina thought it was a home run and people around the world thought Atlanta would be a logical stepping stone for Heinze to make his way to Europe.

But Heinze won just two of 13 games with one of the most expensive rosters in the league, then was let go in mid-July. It could have gone better.

It didn’t take long for interim manager Rob Valentino to actually make it better by…well, injecting some much-improved vibes and tactics that players seemed to enjoy. In just eight games in charge, Valentino picked up four wins.

All of this eventually led to Atlanta making what appears to be the first long-term coaching hire of their existence. Former Seattle assistant Gonzalo Pineda officially took over, guided ATLUTD to the playoffs and now gets a full offseason to begin shaping the team into what could resemble Sounders East. Pineda provides some much-needed stability for one of this year’s most chaotic teams.

On the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to expectations, but still relatively close on the chaos horseshoe, Toronto hired Chris Armas and then dismissed him after a 7-1 loss to D.C. United on July 3 and just one MLS win in 11 matches. The former New York Red Bulls boss, who’s now a Manchester United assistant coach (!!!), struggled mightily. It should be noted all their games were played away from home due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, but still.

Toronto appointed Javier Perez for the rest of 2021 after an uptick in form during his interim stage, but they never fully recovered. They’ll try to reset now under Bob Bradley, who’s again coaching his son Michael. Each layer of that plot is truly wild, and we didn’t even mention the Jozy Altidore saga or how 2020 MVP Alejandro Pozuelo battled injuries all year. Those were two of their DPs, alongside Yeferson Soteldo.

Almost nothing went right.

It should be noted both Atlanta and Toronto’s struggles were a small, but notable part of a major MLS trend in 2021. Here are your top five teams based on the wage bill for this MLS season: LA Galaxy, Atlanta United, Toronto FC, Inter Miami CF and LAFC. Just one of those teams (Atlanta) made the playoffs and they were bounced quickly by the number six team in New York City FC. If we extend that wage bill list to the top 10 teams, just four made the playoffs. Top 16, and you’ve got six whole playoff teams. Just a reminder that 14 teams in this 27-team league made the playoffs and eight of them were in the bottom 11 in wages. That includes both regular-season conference champions.

What does it mean? I dunno, y’all, but MLS is gonna MLS.

The Sounders start and end the year setting records

You may have forgotten this, but Seattle poured kerosene on the doubters and set the MLS record for an unbeaten start to the season. They went 13 games without a loss before finally falling to Minnesota United FC. And all this while dealing with injuries to multiple key players.

It seemed for a while like those injuries might not even matter, especially after they won at Austin FC with five teenagers in the lineup. But Seattle eventually slowed down a bit and dealt with injuries the rest of the way. We never really got to see this team at full capacity, even after Jordan Morris made his way back from an ACL tear. A Seattle team that had to bring Raul Ruidiaz, Nicolas Lodeiro and Alex Roldan off the bench in the playoffs eventually fell to Real Salt Lake by setting a new record: largest shot disparity in a playoff loss.

Or at least I think they did.

That’s 21-0 right there. There’s literally never been a better start to the season and maybe never been a more frustrating end. That’s a weird, weird year you got there, Seattle. And for the league’s best organization, maybe an underwhelming one. Especially as they had to watch Portland come a shootout away from lifting MLS Cup 2021. And I haven’t even mentioned how they nearly won Leagues Cup, only to lose 3-2 to Liga MX’s Club Leon.

I’m going to guess they’ll be back in force again next year and, maybe this time, Brian Schmetzer's team will be a little luckier down the stretch.

The interims find permanence

We already talked about Valentino’s success in Atlanta, but other interims eventually outdid him on their way to permanently taking the reigns for their team. Vanni Sartini took over Vancouver and led them to the playoffs in the year’s most shocking second-half turnaround. Meanwhile, Pablo Mastroeni got handed the keys to a Real Salt Lake team chasing a playoff return, achieved that and then led them to two major postseason upsets in wins over Seattle and Sporting Kansas City.

More importantly, they gave us some of the quotes of the season. Like…


“I'll start from the big, esoteric [view]: It's a human experience. The game of football is played with humans. And my greatest experiences as a player came from a place of feeling. It doesn't come from a place of playing. Does that make sense?” Mastroeni said.

Why yes, Pablo and Vanni, I will do whatever you say.

The back three rises

The biggest tactical storyline of the year came at the back. Like everything else, Joe Lowery covered this better than I could.

By early September, every team in the league had used a three-center back shape in possession. D.C. United, the Colorado Rapids, Nashville SC, LAFC and the Seattle Sounders all greatly increased their usage of three-at-the-back shapes this season and took their place in the top 10 teams that most relied on three-center back shapes over the last two years.

Looking at the league as a whole, there were 207.6 possessions per game in MLS this year. Precisely 75.5 of those (36.4%) involved an offensive team using a three-center back shape. Last year, there were 214 possessions per game – and only 20% involved an offensive team using a three-at-the-back shape.

There were fascinating wrinkles around the league out of the back three, like George Bello’s underlapping runs, Andy Najar’s attacking center back position and Julian Gressel being the second-best chance creator in the league as a wingback. Seattle rode a shift to the back three to the best start in league history and a second-place finish in the West. These kinds of trends come in waves and it will be fascinating to see whether the back-three wave is still coming in or moving out next season.

The Hype Train leaves the station

It’s strange to think about now, but it took until June 19 for Ricardo Pepi to start his second game of the season. He scored of course. And then he didn’t look back.

The 18-year-old homegrown became the US men’s national team's starting striker, clinched the All-Star Game presented by Target for MLS with the winning spot-kick and was named the 2021 MLS Young Player of the Year en route to becoming the most in-demand MLS transfer prospect of the offseason.

Oh, and FC Dallas social media manager Eddie Koton got a tattoo of his face on a train. That was cool.

The Revs run things

Remember, these are in no particular order. But if they had been in order, it would have been hard to keep the Supporters' Shield-winning Revs from being first. They dominated the regular season; set a new single-season points record (73); won the MVP, Comeback Player of the Year, Goalkeeper of the Year and Manager of the Year awards; got four Best XI players; and just all-around thumped nearly every team they came up against.

The same magic didn’t carry over to the playoffs, but the Revs should have nearly everyone back next season, excluding Tajon Buchanan. Fortunately, Sebastian Lletget should help pick up the load as New England’s fourth attacking option after they got him in a trade with the LA Galaxy. I imagine they’ll be just fine with that. Some teams in MLS are still looking for their first option.

But before we move onto next year, we really should celebrate their 2021 as much as possible. They were so good and so unchallenged for so much of the regular season they kind of earned the points record without much fanfare. It all felt like a formality more than anything. When you’re so good that you almost quietly set a record for being good, you should take it as a compliment.

MLS learns to love itself

We mentioned how Vanni Sartini and Pablo Mastroeni received promotions, but they weren’t the only managers hired in-house or from inside the league.

Wilfried Nancy took over CF Montréal to remarkable success after a sudden promotion from an assistant position. Pineda seems to have Atlanta on the correct course after playing and coaching in Seattle. Bradley is now in charge in Toronto. Ezra Hendrickson played and coached for multiple MLS teams before taking over in Chicago. Nico Estevez spent time with the Crew before following Gregg Berhalter to the USMNT and now managing FC Dallas. And Pat Noonan got poached from Philadelphia’s coaching staff to be in charge in Cincinnati. That’s not even mentioning all the new front office hires from inside the league, and (as of writing) we’re still waiting on LAFC and Houston to hire coaches.

I might be imagining this, but it seems there's been a shift away from bringing in outside voices toward intra-league hires who have an understanding and grasp of the weird and at-times-difficult-to-navigate world of MLS.

That’s not to say outside hires can’t be successful. We saw Hernan Losada (D.C. United) and Gerhard Struber (New York Red Bulls) do just fine this season. But clubs both big and small have shown a short-term indication that front office philosophy is moving away from those hires.

Sebastian Blanco saves Portland

Portland were genuinely having a rough time for a large chunk of the year. They were leaking goals both real and expected at a bottom-tier rate, they couldn’t beat Austin FC (of all teams) and then Seattle murderwhomped them 6-2 on their own field. Fortunately for Gio Savarese’s team, things got much, much better from there – in no small part thanks to Sebastian Blanco’s return.

They went on an end-of-year run of 11 wins in 15 games, wrapping up a playoff spot and cruising to MLS Cup despite missing Blanco in the Western Conference Final to a hamstring injury. Portland so incredibly nearly won MLS Cup despite going goalless for 94 minutes of play. They even finally beat Austin. Their remarkable turnaround was the defining storyline of the end of the season and a large part of me still feels bummed we didn’t get to see what a home MLS Cup win at Providence Park would have looked like. With a fully healthy Blanco, they may have accomplished it.

Don’t worry, though. They’ll be back next year. Either them or Seattle. That’s just how this league works (but seriously, there’s some Cascadia dominance in the West).

New homes and old homes fill up

This year we welcomed three new stadiums to the fold, and my word they're all great:

  1. Q2 Stadium in Austin
  2. TQL Stadium in Cincinnati
  3. Lower.com Field in Columbus

Eventually, we got to see what all three looked like with a full house. It’s almost hard to remember that we started the year with limited capacity, but it’s easy to remember just how much better every single moment is with full crowds involved.

Fans are great, y'all.

The Rapids win the West

We’re all the way at No. 10 and we're just talking about the smallest-budget team in MLS winning the Western Conference.

I can’t get over it and I refuse to try. What Robin Fraser managed and what a team comprised largely of players who didn’t quite fit in or simply weren’t appreciated at one place or another accomplished is one of the most remarkable stories in MLS history. It came down to Decision Day, but the Rapids finished as the best team in the West and locked up a Concacaf Champions League spot for 2022. For a lot of the year, it felt like they just weren’t going to overtake Seattle and SKC, but they finally did it at the best possible time. They couldn’t get it done in MLS’ first-ever Thanksgiving Day game, and that undoubtedly stings.

But they’ll probably just run it back next year with even more players everyone else thinks are really good except the team trying to give them away to the Rapids. The next Michael Barrios is out there somewhere. Maybe teams should just start holding onto any player the Rapids are interested in? Padraig Smith and Fraser seem to know more than everyone else.

The numbers (and the eye test) were right about NYCFC

The good folks at Big Soccer Media spent large portions of the year saying “Hey! Lookit the xG for NYCFC! They’re really good!” and then NYCFC would win a few games and we’d point at it excitedly. And then they’d inexplicably start losing and we’d say “Wait, wait, no this will circle back” and then the cycle would continue and some who watched their wins would say “This team is playing some of the best soccer in the league." And then folks who tuned in for their losses would say “I’m really not sure about that” until we got to the point where folks were genuinely wondering at halftime of NYCFC’s late-season game at Atlanta United if the Cityzens were on their way to missing the playoffs entirely.

Then Gudmundur Thorarinsson scored a helluva free-kick, NYCFC drew with Atlanta and successfully recovered from there to make the playoffs behind a magical run from Golden Boot presented by Audi winner Taty Castellanos. And they overcame season-ending injuries to two key starters (Keaton Parks, Anton Tinnerholm) to win MLS Cup and make this happen after three straight road playoff wins.

In a way, it proved the narrative right. And in more ways, it showed us none of us ever know what we’re talking about ever. MLS, y’all.